One of the most beautiful coming of age stories Disney has come up with in recent years came in the form of American Born Chinese. The book adaptation tells the of story of Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a young boy who believes his life to be boring until he finds himself involved in a war with powerful beings.
Awards Radar had the opportunity of speaking with Cindy Chao and Michele Yu, the production designers behind this summer’s smash hit. The duo talked about the challenges of bringing Jin’s world to life, specially considering the contrast between a regular high school and worlds as fantastical as the Monkey King’s (Daniel Kim).
Awards Radar: What was your experience working on American Born Chinese like as Asian women?
It was a remarkable and unforgettable experience. Getting to work alongside icons like Michelle Yeoh and Lucy Liu was truly an honor. We grew up admiring them and their work, so to be able to work with them really was inspiring. And getting to collaborate with other Asian-American, female department heads such as Costume Designer Joy Cretton was also such a pleasure. It seemed like every day was a new opportunity to explore our personal stories around what it was like to grow up as Asian-Americans, and for the two of us, what it was like being children of immigrants and ABCs ourselves. Our experiences really show through in the work we all did for the show; this was a very personal project for many of us, as it felt very special to be invited to contribute our perspective to this really timeless story. Of course the best part was meeting others that looked like you and had similar backgrounds as you who are all making their way in the same challenging industry. It’s very rare in this industry to be able to work in an environment that feels like a community with built-in bonds. Being part of this project at this time felt empowering, it’s a dream come true.
AR: How would you say identity and fantasy were a part of the rich look of this project?
Explorations of identity and fantasy were integral to our approach. The themes that both Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel and our series touch upon are universal and serve to ground the overall look and tone of the show. This story has clear themes of transformation, identity, shapeshifting (both literally and figuratively) and reflection. We wanted to seed these themes throughout both Jin’s world and the mythology-based fantasy world of our version of Chinese Heaven. Part of our initial conversations with our showrunner Kelvin Yu, our first episode’s director Destin Daniel Cretton, and DPs Brett Pawlak and Alan Poon, included how we would capture both worlds and unite them together; how has Heaven been depicted and illustrated in the past in Chinese popular culture and what might be an interesting way to bring it into the present day for a contemporary audience? The result was a version of Heaven that had otherworldly palettes, physics, and scale, but paralleled Earth in some of its forms and conventions, including design and decor elements that were intended to be recognizable mostly by members of the Asian diaspora.
Of course, that’s a quite spot-on interpretation of your question in regards to fantasy. There’s also the fantasies that a teenager like Jin engages in when he imagines who he’s supposed to be, or his father Simon when he tries to reimagine himself as someone he’s not in order to get a promotion, or his mother Christine when she dreams of a better life for her family. Every character in American Born Chinese is engaging in some kind of fantasy around their identities and who they could be. In response to this, we decided that scenes set on Earth in their small community of Sierra Mona needed to feel as grounded as possible, with as many familiar touchstones as we could build in. We wanted the audience to very much feel that the characters were living real, recognizable lives, which would give the fantasy elements – both when it comes to Heaven, as well as their personal fantasy lives – so much more room to expand our world when it came time for it in the story.
The Wang family’s home was such an evocative playground for us in this regard. We wanted to create an authentic environment for our characters and emphasize an often tense and strained yet bustling Chinese-American household. It was important to us that we bring in specific clutter
to fill the space with our personal memories of what it felt like to grow up as an American in an immigrant home. Even with all of the conflict between the Wangs, we wanted to keep it feeling warm, heavily textured, and familiar to the point that it almost feels too comfortable, because that’s what it feels like when you come home to your immigrant family.
We wanted to build in complicated, filtered views from one room to another while keeping an open floor plan where there was always an eyeline so that the camera could track the family as they moved through the space. How we dressed the set helped dictate what the framing would be, the specifics of which we developed with our DP Brett Pawlak and our fantastic Set Decorator Lizzie Boyle. We built in partitions and opportunities to frame our characters inside the set, inside the shot. There are moments where we see Jin’s reflection in the mirror amidst a collage of clippings and drawings in his bedroom – we talked with Lizzie about how the overall effect should be of his face lost among these other faces, all of his other possible identities.
The family’s aquarium – a ubiquitous decor item in many Asian-American interiors – became our homage to Heaven inside their home. It was centrally located between the kitchen, entry, and living areas, and with its fluorescent lighting and saturated colors, it was a hotspot against the more muted home interior. If you look closely, the aquarium dressing shares the same colors and some of the structures and foliage of Heaven; this was a cheeky thing we did to play with scale and have some fun, but it also suggests the idea that even the biggest, sweeping concerns of Heaven are perhaps small in comparison to what’s going on at home and between family.
The layout of the Wang home was also specifically designed to capture the parents through Jin’s point of view. A long hallway separates Jin’s bedroom from the kitchen that is his mother’s domain, and the living room where his dad sits alone on his reclining chair throne, falling asleep while watching TV each night. Jin is always at a distance. There is a sense of separation from his immigrant upbringing that speaks to his struggle with identity. When Jin is in the living room, he’s laying on a sofa that swallows him up – visually, the house that his parents have built is overwhelming him. Overhead shots emphasizing symmetry and geometry also united both worlds. We designed our sets knowing that there would be birds-eye views, as if Heaven is always looking down on Jin and the humans around him.
AR: What movies or shows were used as a reference during the pre-production process of the series?
We devoured visual research pulled from all over – films, television series, art, photography, and even things we saw around LA from just living where we do towards the San Gabriel Valley. We revisited the work of Zhang Yimou a lot; his use of colors and scale (specifically in the films House of Flying Daggers and Hero) served as key inspirations for Heaven in episode four. We also looked at the watercolor paintings of Liam Quan Zhen; the gorgeous photography of Xue Bingdu; the unreal, uncanny landscapes of Paul Hoi; Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain; the wild character & costume designs of Will & Garrett Huxley for inspiration on how the fantastical can be suggested from some smart choices that, while often simple, were incredibly impactful. Additional references include Maria Svarbova’s beautifully balanced photographs and even the Shen Yun stage show for its bold visual style. Of course, we also took a spin through many of the varied iterations of the Monkey King legend and Journey to the West. And those were just a starting point! Our walls were covered in inspiration, our bookshelves were full, and we had a whole database of photos and references we kept digitally and online as well for each set, as well as for overarching themes and tones we were most interested in exploring.
One of our primary resources was a self-made archive of family photos that the two of us pulled together for the benefit of our creative teams – set decoration and props, construction, and any other departments that were interested in accessing it. We literally uploaded hundreds if not thousands of images, temporarily robbing our parents of every photo album they had, and then tagging each image with keywords like “living room”, “1990s”, “Christmas”, “grandparents”, “vacation”, “wallpaper”, “pantry”, etc., so that they were searchable. This became a valuable resource when we needed to have conversations about what the Wang family’s kitchen should look like, what furniture they should have, and what the overall level of dress & mess should be. It was also a really energizing way to start the conversation with each other around what experiences we shared and how to build that authenticity into our sets.
AR: How did you complement each other’s ideas during the production of American Born Chinese?
The short answer to this is that we would constantly be talking and sharing our ideas! And we’ve worked together so long that we don’t need a ton of explanation to understand each other or where we’re coming from. On a fundamental aesthetic level, we agree on a lot of the design decisions even as we each put our own spin on the details. Our best work comes from sitting in a room together and just talking things through, pitching ideas, and seeing what sticks. On this show, that process was even more fun than usual because we each had so much to say about this story and how it should look and feel; it was all very personal. The challenge actually became more so how to edit down everything we wanted to accomplish and really focus on the things that would move the story and characters forward the most, making design choices that had several levels of meaning motivating them beyond simply the impulse to replicate a detail we had experienced ourselves – though we had several quite joyful chances to do that too, especially in the Wang family home.
AR: What contrast did you want to create between the scenery from the Monkey King’s story and Jin’s school life?
There was a constant exchange of ideas on this show around how to portray the very different tones the scripts were setting. The show is simultaneously a fantastical, over-the-top action entwined with Chinese mythology; a very relatable, often comedic portrayal of the modern American high school experience anchored in a very specific coming-of-age story; a cringingly 90s sitcom seen mostly on-screen before breaking its own fourth wall wide open; and a lovingly banal look at Jin and his parents’ home life at the center of it all. We had to hit all of these very different notes while still making it feel like a single, cohesive show.
We were very conscious of the importance our color palette would play in achieving this. Throughout Heaven, Earth, the school, the Wang family’s home, and even the sitcom’s world, we riffed on teals/blues/greens and shades of orange/peach that pulled us towards a thematic sunrise/sunset motif of a world hanging in the balance and existing within the really evocative colors that happen just between day and night, light and dark. We built out the separate worlds and additional palettes from there. We never wanted the worlds to feel entirely separate from each other, because they’re not; the show is all about how culture, history, family, friendship, the society one lives in, and one’s sense of self vs community all inform each other and bleed into each other, despite our attempts to sometimes keep these influences separate and compartmentalized in order to make clearer sense of our worlds.
AR: What was important to show the audience when Guanyin’s world crossed over into Jin’s environment?
It was important to show a different, more grounded and playful side of Guanyin, a revered god for many centuries and across many cultures. Guanyin embodies a soul that has reached full enlightenment, and even though she is playing the part of an undercover auntie to Wei-Chen, it was refreshing to tap into a side that showed her desire to have fun and appreciate the simple things in life. Her apartment was based on the condos you would find in the San Gabriel Valley – very monochromatic, basic, and stripped of detail and ornate furnishings. Contractor-grade everything and tile bought on discount from a warehouse in El Monte. This was done to contrast the more embellished, frivolous, and unnecessary extravagances of Heaven you see in Episode 4. The Guanyin of our show finds joy in doing normal activities like eating at an AYCE buffet and assembling Ikea furniture, and it was great to see her condo slowly furnished by items so different from what she is normally surrounded by in Heaven. It was important to show how down-to-earth someone so respected, wise, and enlightened can be — and of course, how relatable the goddess can be playing a Chinese auntie!
AR: How do you take into account the soul of the characters when figuring out the production design of a series?
We explore every show starting with the characters first. We start off by learning as much as we can about them, their past selves, who they are now, and who they’re meant to become over the course of our story, and then spin off into the details from there. It’s a constant conversation we have between ourselves and the other creators, directors, and writers of the show. We start off by asking questions about the characters to figure out their backstory. In Jin’s case, we asked questions about his parents — what kind of jobs did they have, what brought them over to the
states, what kind of hobbies did they enjoy, what did they study at school? Getting some insight into what their lifestyle was like before Jin was born helped us decide the overall look of the Wang home, the style of the home, and where it was located geographically. We decided it should be a tract-style home, built in the mid twentieth century when that style of home represented the “American Dream”, in a suburban neighborhood that was primarily white but not too far away from Asian communities like the SGV, allowing Jin’s mom to easily drive to Asian supermarkets, her herbalist shop, and her Chinese church group. From there, we’d scout locations to find the exterior of houses in neighborhoods like that. The exterior of the house we ended up loving was located in Pasadena, and the interior of the house was built on stage.
When designing the interior of the Wang home, we looked to what we personally experienced growing up in Chinese households, integrating those memories with specific character notes about the parents’ histories. It was important to note that they have been struggling with their relationship while acclimating to American culture. In the series, Jin’s mom wants to move forward with their life as Americans, but his dad is reluctant to move on from his ties to China. Christine frequently inhabits the kitchen, always busying herself either by cooking, cleaning, and shifting from one room to the other, while Simon sits in his chair falling asleep while watching TV after a long, busy day at work. Their worlds clash when they are together in the same room, as their energies are way off of one another. This led us to designing Christine’s areas of the house as dominantly green and coding Simon’s areas more orange in contrast – and of course, there’s also a plot point about the significance of these colors later on.
It was the same process when designing Jin’s bedroom. We dissected Jin’s character as someone always between two worlds: American vs Chinese, child vs adult, invisible vs popular, nerdy vs cool, fantasy vs reality. We wanted his personal space to reflect this duality. His mirrors are covered in clippings and drawings – again, always indexing his reflection with other potential identities not his own. We see comics, manga, and sports paraphernalia crowding every inch of wall space, although an old tacky wallpaper border that he had no say in choosing still takes up some real estate on the wall. Textures and materials in his space also show off paired colors, such as oranges & yellows with greens & blues that have thematic importance throughout the series. The key to developing a “soul” for the characters through our sets comes down to really understanding them as fully-formed, complex people who make their own choices. The audience doesn’t necessarily need to understand every choice; you don’t want to hold their hands too much. But as the creator and designer, we always have a reason for what we build in. Everything is a clue to who these characters are.
On American Born Chinese, this process was so special because for the very first time, when we asked the question, “Who are these characters?,” our answer started with “They’re us!”. It was such a joy to be able to pull bits and pieces of who we are onto the screen and be visible in that way for the first time in our careers.
As stated by Cindy Chao and Michele Yu, the production design team accomplishes more for any given title that you might expect. Jin is learning how to find his place in the world, but that world wouldn’t exist without the hard work of the production design team. All episodes of American Born Chinese are available to stream on Disney+